I’ll admit it: I’m in danger of becoming a helicopter parent.
After reading Julie Lythcott-Haims book, “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Over-parenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” I realized that many of my actions could be setting up my children for difficulty in years to come.
Parenting, she writes, has come to be as much about us as our kids. “We’re so afraid of getting it wrong that we overdo it to try to get it right.” From this mentality springs helicopter parenting.
We hover around children during play dates, follow them around the playground so they don’t get hurt, and carry their backpacks as we escort them into school. We select their activities, and a few of us intervene on their behalf with teachers or coaches.
All of this handholding sends the message that our kids can’t do this without us.
While my preschooler is capable of putting on her shoes, I’ll often do it for her because we’re short on time. I have driven by my son’s elementary school during his recess to see who he’s playing with, and I’ve mediated plenty of conflicts between my children and other kids that could have been resolved without my input. Any sign of my children struggling and I crumble — my first instinct is to swoop in and fix it.
Of course, there is another way.
Brookline’s Marie Schwartz, who runs TeenLife — which connects students and parents with community service organizations, summer programs, and schools for kids in grades 7-12 — suggests an alternative: submarine parenting. Parents stay out of sight — under the surface, if you will — letting kids manage situations as they come up.
“Parents pop up when needed, but the kids are guiding their own way,” says Schwartz. Far from disengaged parenting, submarine parenting means keeping a hidden eye on your children’s progress.
Helping our children develop resilience is critical, says Dr. Ilana Blatt-Eisengart, a clinical child psychologist in Reading with two children, ages 3 and 5.
“When we swoop in and save our kids, they don’t get the experience of failing and picking themselves back up,” says Blatt-Eisengart. “If kids don’t develop resilience, when they go out into world and hit the first big bump, they completely fall apart.”
Submarine parenting resonates with Blatt-Eisengart, who recommends putting children in situations a little beyond what they are sure they can do.
“Help your children find a place they aren’t entirely comfortable but where you are fairly sure they’ll have success, then you step back and see what the outcome is,” she says. “If it’s great you cheer them on, if not you step in and figure out what’s next.”
It’s crucial that parents manage their own anxieties about their kids. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this a bad situation or just uncomfortable for me?’ If your kid looks to you, you want him to see you saying, ‘go for it.’ No parent is able to do this all of the time, but we have to realize we can’t make the world totally safe for them.”
In Schwartz’s opinion, kids have become afraid to try new things. “Too many kids are in a bubble. Travel as a family — go to other countries to get perspective or even just venture to a different part of town, go to museums, and involve them in the planning process.”
The goal is for your children to be able to stand on their own. As they get older, participating in supervised experiences away from home is crucial to achieving this, says Schwartz, whose own children are in their 20s.
“Send them to an overnight program — there are lots of them out there, camps, etc. They need to live with someone they don’t know, try new foods,” she says. “A lot of kids say they don’t want to go. I say put your feet down. Pick something you know they’ll like and they’ll thank you later.”
Dr. Kristin Lee Costa, lead faculty, behavioral science at Northeastern University, says that no one wants their kids to deal with difficulty. “But we want them to have a healthy blend of realism. The idea that everyone gets a trophy is nice in theory but it’s not reality. Kids should know that and that it is possible to celebrate risk, mistake, and hardship.”
Costa recommends encouraging kids to look at the big picture when things go wrong.
“Help them realize they can overcome another kid being mean to them,” she says. “If they are anxious and don’t want to go to school, have them sit with their anxiety. When they are able to recompose later, celebrate that they were able to get themselves back on track.”
Parents these days tend to have very close relationships with their kids — which is much different than even a few decades ago.
“We spend more time with our kids than any generation has. There is data that says most millennials consider a parent their closest friend. We get very involved in the lives of our kids,” says Costa. “We are their sounding boards, but it’s important that we don’t let their anxiety become our own. While it’s very much in our brain chemistry to protect our kids, don’t jump into the emotional disarray with them.”
One the best things we can do for our kids is to lead by example.
“Kids need to see their parents engaged in something that excites them,” Schwartz says. “You have to think in your head that you are the role model. If you exhibit confidence and independence, they will too.”Jaci Conry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.